It's been two months before the novel coronavirus is thought to have begun its deadly advance in Wuhan, China. Now the Trump administration is ending a $200-million pandemic early-warning program. It aims at coaching scientists in China and other countries to recognize and respond to such a threat.
The launch of this project was back in 2009 by the U.S. Agency for International Development. This recognizes 1,200 different viruses that have the potential to erupt into pandemics. It includes more than 160 novel coronaviruses. This initiative, PREDICT, also trains and supports staff in 60 foreign laboratories. It includes the Wuhan lab that identifies SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that produces COVID-19.
Fieldwork stops when the funding ran out in September. And organizations that work on the PREDICT program hit off dozens of scientists and analysts, tells Peter Daszak. He is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a pivotal player in the program.
$2.26 Million Fund
On Wednesday, USAID invests in an emergency extension to the program. By issuing $2.26 million over the next six months to send experts who will help foreign labs suppress the pandemic. But program directors say the funding will do little to advance the initiative's original mission.
“Look at the name: Our efforts were to predict this before it happens. That’s the part of the program that was exciting. And that’s the part I’m worried about,” Daszak states.
“It's critical that we don’t drop the idea of a large-scale, proactive, predictive program that tries to catch pandemics before they happen. Cutting a program that could in any way reduce the risk of things like COVID-19 happening again is, by any measure, shortsighted," he adds.
It is ambiguous whether another five-year grant would have dulled the influence of the current pandemic. But the Trump administration is under intensifying criticism for its past moves to downgrade global health security. The list includes proposals to gash funding to science agencies and the exclusion of the National Security Council's key global health post.
A spokesman for USAID states PREDICT was “just one component of USAID’s global health security efforts and accounted for less than 20% of our global health security funding.” He also states a new initiative to stop the spillover of viruses from animals to humans is scheduled to be awarded in August.
Two Five-Year Funding Cycles
The PREDICT project, which was working on two five-year funding cycles that formally concludes last September. It was consisting of both epidemiologists and wildlife veterinarians. They were examining the types of interactions between animals and humans. Researchers suspect this leads to the current outbreak of COVID-19, this time.
The pandemic "didn’t surprise us, unfortunately,” states Jonna Mazet. He is the executive director of the One Health Institute in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. He is serving as the global director of PREDICT for a decade. “The work had been ongoing for some time. And when the crisis hits, everybody stands up and takes notice and says, ‘OK, we believe you.’”
Funding For Viruses
The Wuhan lab installed USAID funding for equipment. And PREDICT coordinators combined the scientists there with researchers in other countries to synchronize the tracking of novel viruses.
The project's second funding cycle concludes on Sept. 30, 2019, less than two months before the new coronavirus. After that, it is granted a zero-dollar six-month extension — through March 2020 — to write up final reports.
Earlier this year, as COVID-19 takes off, U.S. lawmakers express their frustration over the program's end.
“Addressing and preventing the spread of coronavirus and potential pandemic disease outbreaks is a serious matter that requires adequate resources for and cooperation between experts throughout the federal government,” Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Angus King state in a letter to USAID's administrator.
Extension of PREDICT
On Wednesday, the PREDICT program is now pushed through September. To offer emergency technical support to foreign labs battling the coronavirus pandemic. To date, PREDICT-supports labs in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia are actively testing for coronavirus cases. They are sending reagents and other supplies to assist the labs.
Meanwhile, in Rwanda, scientists who have the training in the PREDICT program triggers early social distancing measures.
Daszak tells he’s eager to further investigate the hundreds of wildlife samples in the collection during the PREDICT initiative over the years. They are looking to identify whether any of them could be an intermediate host for the virus currently sweeping the earth.
But with the limited resources and timeline, efforts to advance in-depth fieldwork under PREDICT will be minimal. Most of the continuation funding will focus on squelching the current outbreak, not preventing the next.
“It’s common sense to know your enemy,” Daszak states. "Instead, we’re all hiding inside our houses as we wait around for a vaccine. That’s not a good global strategy for battling a dangerous virus."